Marginalia intertwined between them, scrawled notes of sex appeal and penciled pieces of their hearts.
UC Berkeley was not what he expected, but then again, she had been the sole reason he chose to attend the university, because of her sultry smile and long eyelashes and delightful laughter. He weathered the storms of projects and essays and the snooty professors who didn't give a shit about his athletic talents; in spite of his distaste for creepers who think a strictly enforced dorm room curfew would be a good idea, he resisted kicking the ass of his sissy roommate; twenty thousand parties and not one semi-drunken adulterous kiss. He was a saint in college.
Stanford was everything she wanted and more. Her mother was thrilled when she came to visit some time before Thanksgiving, so they could drive back home together. Her boyfriend, the Prince Charming of East High but a mere commoner at Berkeley and who she saw perhaps once a week, rarely ever handled whatever problems she had in college. In the meantime she had come up with a plan, so that whenever they could not make the time to spend together, they could still leave something behind for the other to find.
The library was not impressive, with short bookshelves and tattered encyclopedias, but she loved it. It was smack dab in the middle of the campuses, so the driving distance was fair. "A library? Really?" he asked skeptically when they first met out front. It was December, and storm clouds were rolling in.
She grinned and leaned up to lock lips with him and her fingers raked across his shoulder, the fabric of his shirt snagging slightly. And then she said, "I have to go."
"What? We just got here!"
The charms of her bracelet pinged as she pointed up toward the turbulent sky. He protested loudly, and she explained she had a class in twenty minutes, and she wanted to escape the rain on the road. Before she gave him a goodbye kiss, she whispered in his ear, "Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck."
Confusion panned out across his face and he held her hand shortly before she gently let go of him. "Gabriella, please, just tell me what you're talking about!"
She fluttered her fingers. "Call me later, hotshot." And she disappeared around the corner, her ponytail of coal-colored hair bouncing behind her.
Troy Bolton and libraries never did mix well. He had a penchant for magazines, newspapers, even pamphlets—anything besides the thick agony of four hundred pages and dated vocabulary. His grandfather had forced him to recite random passages of The Grapes of Wrath when he was nine, and following that, he strongly disliked all that had to do with reading.
The librarian at the front desk was elderly, hunched over, and had an annoyed scowl that intimidated him. Troy decided to find the John Steinbeck book on his own, and thus spent forty minutes rambling up and down the aisles before one of the few computers was free. Once he finally located it, with some help from a smarmy preteen that had taken pity on his ignorance, he skimmed through the pages. Nothing.
The copy was ancient, and the pages were yellow, emitting a troubling odor of mothballs each time he turned a corner. "Jesus, Gabriella," he grumbled under his breath, about to say more when he came across the Table of Contents, and saw some loopy, out-of-place penmanship.
Congratulations, hotshot. You found this; now it's your turn. And just so you know, I've always liked your eyes. They are this magnificent shade of gray, and turn pale blue whenever you wear dark clothes.
He chuckled, and did not care that the grouchy, old librarian would wag her finger disdainfully at him. Troy stood up, and carefully put Of Mice and Men back in its rightful spot, as he considered which book he would vandalize as a response. The preteen appeared again, asking in a nasally tone if he needed help for the second time. Jane Austen's Emma was conveniently on display, so Troy ignored the inquiry and swiped the novel from its arrangement.
I have loved you for longer than I can remember.
This became a tradition, defacing public property in only the tiniest of ways. For three years, they romanced one another with the graffiti of countless stories and bestsellers. She would call him with a book title, and he would go to find it, and vice versa. Back and forth, it became the playful banter that he looked forward to every day.
She found in A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens: Okay, I'll be honest. In the tenth grade, when you asked me if that camisole you had just bought was see-through? I said it wasn't, but it was. You were insanely sexy that day.
Her reply to him came in the form of Froth! The Science of Beer by Mark Denny: I would normally be mad at you, but since you called me sexy, I'll let it slide. P.S. I thought you would enjoy the subject topic of this particular book.
Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower: Beer is nice, but you are better.
A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare: Sometimes you amaze me, and sometimes I roll my eyes at you, but you never fail to make me smile, Wildcat.
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger: Really. You haven't used that nickname in ages.
Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli: Oh, well, you never know what you have until it's gone. I missed it. Hotshot.
In retrospect, Troy remembered smiling at this, and running his fingers over the word hotshot, the ink of the pen still new and untouched. Years later, he inhaled and turned away from the decrepit library and the stacks and stacks of books, still tender to the fragments of Gabriella scattered among them, and he began to cry.
Paint dripped down her face like tears. He couldn't see her eyes, which were clouded with a bluish fog that somehow made him sneeze. "I've missed you!" he tried to shout, but what he assumed to be the hands of God came around and muffled his words. "Brie! Brie! Gabriella!"
The hands dissolved and she smiled and clapped two cymbals together, a loud bang-bang that nearly gave him a heart attack. He looked at her, puzzled and crestfallen, and she clapped them again, a gunshot in his chest.
Troy sat up, panting heavily, his ribcage rising and falling and sweat crowning the top of his head. Goose bumps rose on his skin, and at that moment, he knew he would not be able to go back to sleep. The kitchen beckoned him to share a midnight snack, but he did not make it past the living room. "Sharpay!" he shrieked, crashing into before inappropriately canoodling with a floor lamp that he did not remember leaving in that spot. "Holy, shit. What—are—you—doing here?" His frazzled nerves were impeding his trachea at the moment.
She sat on the couch, flipping through late night infomercials, hair up in a bun and a huge bag of Doritos next to her. "Chad saw you earlier this week, and said you seemed pretty jittery," she replied simply, not tearing her eyes away from the television long enough to meet his glare. "Since I am well aware of where you keep the spare key—which, by the way, is horribly hidden, I mean, underneath the fire extinguisher, are you serious?—I thought I would drop by to see how you were doing." At this, Sharpay Evans finally turned to see him. "Ah, Bolton. You look like crap."
The clock on the wall snickered as it tick-tocked back and forth, softly screaming the ungodly hour it was.
"Your concern, while strangely endearing, is not needed," he droned. "You and Chad can't keep trespassing. I'm fine. I feel fine, and I am fine."
A shoddy-looking necklace popped up on screen and Sharpay snorted at its chintzy gemstones. "Trespassing? You feel fine?" she said, her squeal of emphasis piercing in his ears. "Don't be silly, young man, that statement went in one ear and out the other," she finished, adopting the voice of a mother. She walked over to examine him. "Five o'clock shadow, cheap drug store deodorant, and a Heal the Bay t-shirt with a hole in the armpit. Yes, you truly look like crap."
The candor ripped open freshly sealed wounds. He winced and thought of that summer, the one after graduation where he was just getting around to be honest only because of that damned Gabriella Montez. But her truthfulness was classic, rather than insulting. If she could see him at that moment, she would say that she liked it better when he shaved, that his new smell was interesting, and his clothes were just fine. She did always have simple taste.
The insults recommenced. "Coffee breath, dirty Robert Pattinson-esque hair, nasty hangnails—"
"Sharpay," he begged.
"And you're having nightmares again," she finished flatly.
He could have pretended he had no idea what she was talking about, but a part of him was screaming thank you, thank you, thank you. Most everyone else did not ask questions, but an Evans never, ever fell into the category of most everyone else.
Over the time of his breakdown, people had taken turns keeping an eye on him. Chad and Sharpay were the ones who came around most, even when there had been a falling out between the two several years ago, after a spur-of-the-moment road trip and some cigarettes. In spite of the dozens of curse words and rude gestures they had thrown at one another, their mutual animosity was invariably trivial in comparison to the Great Depression that Troy had become.
Chad lived by the bay, with a trophy wife and glass walls facing the bridge; Sharpay was in and out of San Francisco and Manhattan, dabbling in the likes of journalism and PR. Their loyalty as friends was never compromised by Troy's temper, but he had a difficult time accepting the fact that they were practically his babysitters.
"It wasn't a nightmare," he insisted. "I don't have nightmares."
"Puh-lease." She sauntered around him and said mockingly, "Because I am, after all,Troy Bolton, former basketball all-star and current beloved sportswriter for the New York Times. Nothing could possibly be wrong with me! Nothing at all!"
He stared, and considered calling her a bitch. But then all the moments of weakness before, among the funeral and the therapy and the horrible mess of a will Gabriella left, bombed his mind. And during all this, Chad and Sharpay and the rest of the world had stood waiting—and rooting—for him. Troy stopped. "I keep seeing her," he said finally, unable to bring his voice above a whisper. "She comes and taunts me and all I do now is see her. And I don't want to. I can't."
The laugh lines in his face were few and far between, and she mentally traced the wrinkles of stress and trauma around his cheekbones. "It's okay to miss her, you know," she said. "There's no time limit to grieving."
"Don't," he said, voice crumbling, just like he would in a few minutes.
"Being gone does not equal being forgotten, Troy."
"Stop, Sharpay. I don't need—" But he did not know how to finish that sentence, because in truth, Troy Bolton did not function alone. Everything in his life had been all about there's no 'I' in 'team', or the family that lives together stays together. It was, at that moment, not what he needed, but what he wanted.
The apartment, in its empty state of mind, the kind he loved best, grew louder and louder until he screamed for it to stop. A symphony of car horns down below, an alarm clock on the floor above them, an embarrassingly audible sexcapade going on at the neighbor's down the hall. The noise was smothering him, and he broke down on the floor, a fraction of the man Gabriella Montez had always insisted he was.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum: I like to think of you as my Jack-of-All-Trades. You can do anything.
Sharpay came over, and sat beside him, and placed her hand on his upper back calmly. "You are allowed to miss her," she said, in a voice quiet enough for him to really listen. "I miss her, and you can, too."
He hated that Sharpay could see him like this. Troy never cried. And when he found Gabriella, bloody all over the bathroom floor, a person completely different from the cute girl in freshmen Spanish class, he thought that, maybe, he shouldn't fall apart. She wouldn't want him to be like that.
And so now, four years later as Sharpay Evans pretended this was all normal and he finally let go of himself, the nightmares began to circulate, watching and waiting and laughing.
She was strolling along the sidewalk, in a short dress and sandals, as it poured, and she swung her hips and stood on her toes once in a while, as if dancing between the raindrops. He ran after her, until he dropped into a vicious puddle, only a few inches wide and deeper than one could possible imagine.
"Gabriella!" he yelled, waving his hands frantically. "Gabriella!"
Whatever it was—guilt, compassion, boredom—that decided she would turn around and join him, he was grateful. She hid an eye roll and casually fell beside him, the puddle so ambiguously monstrous that he began to confuse it with an ocean.
His clothes were beginning to get heavy, and he sputtered, treading water. Troy kicked his legs as hard as he could in order to keep from suffocating. Next to him, Gabriella floated happily, her hair up in a golden headband, tufts of black piled on top. She reminded him of a goddess.
"You're rather cute when you're vulnerable," she told him in a very matter-of-fact voice.
"Jesus, I can't—" He swallowed a disgusting mouthful of sewage water and coughed. "Gabriella, what is going on?"
"Wake up, hotshot," she said, stretching her arms out around her momentarily. "This has to stop. You don't have time to dwell on me." She slipped beneath the surface, and Troy waited, until she tugged on his legs and he drowned with her.
June of his senior year in college was a somber time for Troy. He had been helpless as he received his diploma, and heard the applause of his parents and other relatives in the audience. "We are so proud of you!" Lillian Bolton had told him afterward, gathering him in her arms.
Their graduations were adjacent to one another, hers following his by days. And as the lector at Stanford stood at the podium, calling out student after student, and skipping over the piteous name Montez, he destroyed the tears that threatened his manliness in front of perfect strangers who assumed he was just another guest, standing in back, witnessing the commencement.
That evening he came home, keys dropped on the floor and tie hung like a noose around his neck. He did not notice this dark coincidence in the shadows of his empty apartment, and by midnight, he had passed out with a multitude of beer bottles on the couch. That was when the first nightmare came.
"Wildcat, Wildcat, can't be bought! Run, run, run and make your shot!" Gabriella hurrahed and shook pompoms around, black and blue like their high school's colors. The chants had always been stupid.
He leaned against the brick wall, and tilted a beer against his lips. They were in an alleyway. "Hah," he burped, "You were never a cheerleader, Brie."
"Oh?" She turned and smiled coquettishly. "But this way, I'm like everyone else."
The beer ran out, and he dropped the bottle. The glass shattered against the ground. "What? No, no, you aren't like everyone else. You're different."
"Prove it!" she squealed, and ran to do a cartwheel. Her hands splashed in the puddles, and her palms came up with dirt on them. The dirt soon turned to blood and she began to laugh. "Wildcats, Wildcats, rah-rah-rah! Go-o-o-o team!"
He ran after her, his hands swarming her torso like a seatbelt. She wriggled out from underneath him and smiled at the deserted end of the alleyway. "Oh, baby, baby, you make me feel so alive."
In her old college journals, Sharpay Evans had written how she severely missed Chad Danforth. She would describe every aspect of him, head to toe, in detail, with explicit adjectives that she knew would make her conservative parents blush. For one weekend in April of senior year, the Saturday of her birthday, she and Mr. Danforth had reunited. Their make-up sex was emotional, passionate, ardent, and heartfelt. The night she would celebrate twenty-two years behind her, and many more ahead of her, she got a horrifying call from her brother.
"Ryan!" she said cheerfully, hiccupping as Chad's mouth moved across her body. She giggled and exclaimed, "Happy birthday, twin brother!"
"Sharpay," he tried at first, but she wasn't listening yet.
"Twenty-two! Can you believe it? We can drink and be merry! Oh, of course, we can do anything we want to!"
He began again, "Sharpay, wait—"
"Chad! Stop it!" she tittered, and then, "Oops. I don't think you were supposed to hear that, twin brother. Oh well! It's our birthday! Who the hell even cares?"
Then she blinked, and sat up, and Chad was irritated as the clasp of her bra escaped his hold. Sharpay looked at the clock; it was a little past eleven. In New York, it would be close to two in the morning. "Ryan, why are you up so late? You—are you partying?" she asked, hoping for a bright, carefree answer. His tone had unnerved her.
"No, that's not why I'm calling," he said patiently, and she pursed her lips. "I wish I could say this in a less… abrupt manner, but there's been an accident. Well, no, it wasn't so much of an accident, but it's not good, Sharpay."
And so, when she should have been blowing out candles and dancing to Lady Gaga and making out with Chad Danforth, Sharpay Evans found out the two lovers who were destined to be together had been torn apart by one borrowed bullet and a surprising spiral of depression that would have come sooner to the rest of the world than to this innocent pair of soul mates.
"The funeral is on Saturday."
When she heard this, it was like a sonic boom in her head, and everyone began to run in different directions.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by F. Scott Fitzgerald: You're like lightning. Gone in a moment but later, the thunder comes, and we all remember you're still here.
What bothered him most, at twenty-six years old, was that she had not even thought to say goodbye. Their last words, he specifically remembered, were, "Call me later, you handsome devil," and "Why, sure, sexy girl."
Nothing close to "I love you" or "You mean the world to me" or "It isn't your fault".
He could have fixed this, but the responsibility he had as a boyfriend and a best friend had been shot to hell.
He lived with this, every day.
And everyone else told him otherwise. His parents, whenever they visit, followed a formula. At dinner, they have small talk, before Lillian dives into the world of Gabriella, and Troy says he doesn't care, that he has moved on, while Jack holds back an eye roll and stares into space while his wife, bless her, rambles on and makes things worse.
Sharpay explained to him that Gabriella wasn't happy, and while she loved him very much, sometimes the hotshot cannot do everything.
Chad had handed him a beer and said it was fine if they got drunk. Everyone has his or her own way of mourning.
Four years: the anniversary crept up on him, in the middle of the workweek, when he was at lunch with a client. He stopped suddenly, as the businesswoman blabbered on, and his breath caught in his throat, like his subconscious was building up a wall and denying his emotions passageway. "Excuse me," he said, and stood up, throwing his napkin over his hardly-touched food. "It's an emergency… We will have to reschedule."
As he fled the restaurant, he nearly felt his legs buckle, weary under the weight of the stuffy atmosphere, and Troy wondered if Gabriella was chasing after him, sweet-talking in his ear like she always had.
This time, she would only speak in dial tones. "God, damn it," he snapped at the space behind her, refusing to look her in the eye. "Gabriella, I am so tired of these games. I am too old to play them."
Her lips parted; three rings, high-pitched, before a low couple of beeps.
"I cannot understand you, but you're trying to talk to me. This doesn't work. This can't work." He unraveled his fists, cooling his temper. "I don't know what you're saying. Or dialing. Whatever."
Medium tones fell out of her mouth and she simpered, holding up her hand to her face. Her thumb and her pinky stuck out, and it looked like a phone. "Call you?" he asked, getting desperate. One note.
Finally, she spoke his language, "Whatever you think you can hold onto needs to be released. And start picking up the pieces that broke four years ago. Wildcat, you were always so magnificent. I miss you, handsome devil."
He opened his eyes before he could call her sexy girl. It was dawn, and twilight was just beginning to tap on the windows. The apartment smelled like summertime, and he breathed out. The phone next to the bed rang, and he let it go to voicemail. "Hi, this is Troy and Gabriella. We're not available right now, so leave us a message, and we'll call you back!"
His parents both agreed he should delete it. Chad thought it was peculiar, but understandable to keep it. Sharpay patted his shoulder sadly as he skipped the umpteenth telemarketer message, which would be perpetually unaware that the nice-sounding girl on the recording was dead, and therefore not around to return their calls.
One day, the answering machine's message would accidentally get erased, or he would be forced to get a new phone, another piece of Gabriella removed, obliterated, scratched out. Each time he was compelled to realize this, he would fish around in his closet for the box of keepsakes she had so blatantly created in the weeks anticipating the day he found her, bloody all over the bathroom.
The will was buried at the bottom. It was tucked beneath her tassel from her lonely high school graduation cap, her first A on a high school English essay, the tennis bracelet she had inherited from a distant aunt that she never wore, and a Polaroid of them at Prom. Though he wanted to be nostalgic, he ignored the trinkets and finally picked out what he was looking for.
It was awkwardly written, somewhat rushed and a little insincere. Despite this, it stated plainly and clearly that Troy was entitled to each and every one of her belongings, if and when she should need to have a beneficiary. He sighed and crumpled the paper in his hands, before hissing, "Shit!" under his breath and carefully smoothing it out again.
The backside had never been viewed, simply because there was never any reason to do so. But he saw something that he wished immediately he had seen years before, in soft pencil and familiar penmanship: All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren.
The library was, as always, smack dab in the middle of Berkeley and Stanford, a stretch of loneliness cut in half. He drove and the roads began to get busier, the day starting for the rest of civilization. He realized, too late, that the library wouldn't open so early. At the door, he peered inside the glass, and spotted a woman standing at the desk.
She was not the librarian who was elderly, hunched over, with an annoyed, intimidating scowl. This replacement was younger, thinner, stood up straight, and looked somewhat friendly. He tapped on the glass and she looked up, and raised an eyebrow. At the door, she unlocked it, cautiously. "Can I help you?" she said.
Troy inhaled. "I was wondering if you had All the King's Men, by Robert Penn Warren. I—I need it. I would like to check it out."
The woman smiled. "Oh. Well, we are not open until eight—"
"I know," he interrupted. "Look, I'm really sorry, it's barely seven, but it can't wait. I can't wait. Please?"
She reflected for a moment. He could have been a cold-blooded killer, who happened to be a good liar. He could have been a thief, who was petty enough to raid the cash register beneath the desk that held no more than twenty dollars in late book fees. Or, he could have been someone who had never been in touch with literature, but finally found a reason to run back to it.
The young librarian chose the last option, and let him inside.
All the King's Men was easy to find. Troy had remembered perfecting his book-searching skills, after so many notes passed back and forth. He picked up the sole copy on the shelf, and weighed it in his hands: heavier than he would expect, probably a fantastic story to read one day. But at the moment, he did not care. He shuffled through pages, up and down and side-to-side in hopes of finding the cursive he missed quite a lot.
When you read this, if you ever read this, I suppose you will at first be angry with me, and unhappy with the circumstances.
He froze, and his eyes pilfered the first sentence, robbing it of its confidentiality. She knew the timeline. She understood she would not be around once he finally saw this.
But I need you to know you have made my life so much better than it ever could have been, in the past, present, or future.
Tears teetered on his eyelashes. He shivered and the young librarian a few paces away decided to leave him alone.
I know you are strong.
He replied, "For once, you were wrong."
Please, don't punish yourself. Don't waste any time on me, because I know you have so much to live for, and I will be with you, every step of the way, I promise.
"Promises are made to be kept," he said briskly, and his hands shook around the pages. All the King's Men must have been a sad book; it had to be.
The universe had given them everything; they were handed to one another on a silver platter, each with a heart to love the other back. But the universe had also lost sight of them, just as it lost sight of Brad and Jennifer, and Leo and Gisele, and Ryan and Rachel. Two blameless children fell through the cracks and the outcome was beyond tragic.
I will always be here, hotshot. And you can thrive. You still have a chance. I always knew you were the best guy to fall in love with, and the best guy to love me back.
The nightmares were her way of talking to him, telling him to move on, until he could see this last message, the word of honor that he thought he would never hear. As the young librarian turned a blind eye and busied herself at her desk, he wrote in the same book, something he had never done before, slowly, to savor the moment as he fooled himself into believing that he was actually speaking to Gabriella, and that she was actually listening.
All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren: I am a mess without you. I don't know what to do, and every time someone wants to set me up on a blind date, I would like to strangle them. It's been four years and yet I feel like it was only yesterday. I still don't understand why you left, and I doubt I ever will. I want to think I could have saved you. But Sharpay says that sometimes the hotshot can't do everything. I miss you calling me hotshot.
The nightmares did not follow him home, and in the passenger seat of his truck, he imagined her sitting, the wind combing through her hair as she rolled down the window and the marginalia intertwined between them, the same scrawled notes of sex appeal and penciled pieces of their hearts. "My Wildcat," he dreamed of her saying in a singsong voice. "My angel, my nightmare, my Wildcat."
The radio crooned a ballad of the Beatles, which had been their favorite: "I found my way upstairs and had a smoke, and somebody spoke and I went into a dream." The song bridged the gap between the present and the afterlife, and the lyrics continued, a healing process as Gabriella kept on sweet-talking in Troy's ear like she always had.
I'd love to turn you on…